Members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania have sought legal advice after being falsely accused of anti-Semitism.
The accusations, made by a right-wing Zionist student and Israel-aligned media, have prompted an investigation by the university’s administration that could result in punishment of the Palestine solidarity group.
Temple University announced that it sent the results of their investigation — which have not been made public — to the local district attorney’s office last week.
A Zionist student aggressively confronted and made racist comments to SJP members who were tabling during a large student organization information fair on 20 August, eyewitnesses say. A student unaffiliated with SJP then slapped him in the face.
The Zionist student, who is also a fellow of CAMERA on Campus (a project of the right-wing, anti-Palestinian media watchdog group CAMERA) claimed that the students taunted him with an anti-Semitic slur.
The CAMERA fellow had apparently just returned from an Israel advocacy conference for students in Boston organized by the group, which trained participants in using body language and tone of voice in “combatting anti-Israel programming.”
At the start of the new school year, Temple SJP, along with many other student organizations, advertised their causes to encourage new membership. Temple SJP handed out pamphlets with information on Palestinian human rights and engaged in discussions with students about the recent Israeli onslaught in Gaza.
According to eyewitness accounts, the CAMERA on Campus fellow walked up to the SJP table, made racist statements about Palestinians and, when asked to leave, launched into an argument with a friend of some of the SJP members who is not a member of the group himself.
According to students who witnessed the incident, the CAMERA on Campus fellow became aggressive and moved toward one of the female SJP members at the table, and was slapped on the cheek by the non-SJP student with whom he argued. The fellow’s sunglasses fell off.
Immediately after the incident, the right-wing blog TruthRevolt — a project of the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a virulently anti-Palestinian media organization — alleged that the CAMERA fellow, identified as Daniel Vessal, was “punched in the face” and called a “kike” and a “baby killer” by SJP members.
Samantha Pinto, a senior studying Italian and history, is a member of SJP and one of the students who sat at the group’s table and witnessed the incident. She told The Electronic Intifada that these charges are wholly false, and that none of the students there had even heard of the anti-Semitic slur before.
“None of the Palestinians or Arabs who were there recognized the k-word,” Pinto explained. “They said, ‘how do I even pronounce this?’”
Pinto said that Vessal “was trying to instigate trouble … He was being aggressive and yelling, and calling us all idiots.” When Vessal declared that Israel wasn’t occupying Palestine, but rather that “Palestinians were occupying Gaza,” Pinto said she started to laugh. “At that point, he moved closer to the table, and closer to us,” she said.
It was at that moment when the student slapped Vessal in the face. “I immediately contacted the Student Activities [administration], letting them know that this wasn’t an SJP member who did this and the other student was harassing us,” Pinto said.
She added that one of Vessal’s two friends who accompanied him to confront the SJP table had a university-issued t-shirt on, indicating that he was employed by the university. “And he was walking around, instigating with a classmate,” Pinto said. The other friend was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of the Israeli army, she added.
She said it was “very bad” that the student slapped Vessal. “Usually, we just tell Zionists, as much as they say racist things to our Arab and Palestinian members, to just go away. It’s been really shocking to all of us.”
In a 3 September statement, Temple SJP stressed that it “condemns all violence and utilizes nonviolent means to fulfill its objectives for supporting Palestine. Moreover, SJP condemns and stands against anti-Semitism in all of its insidious forms. This is in keeping with SJP’s opposition to all forms of racism, oppression and exploitation.”
“Mastering debate tactics”
Just a few weeks before the incident at Temple University, CAMERA hosted its “annual student leadership and advocacy training conference” in Boston.
According to a puff piece posted by the Israel-aligned news service JNS.org, “the varied three-day event included lectures such as ‘Less Hamas, more hummus,’ training on how to craft a personal narrative, mastering debate tactics, and gaining knowledge on some of the anti-Israel campus groups students may need to confront.”
Aviva Slomich, CAMERA’s campus department director, told JNS.org that student participants were provided with a “variety of tools ranging from social media training to combating BDS resolutions,” referring to the campaigns for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel that are expanding on college campuses.
Students were also trained in “body language,” “tone of voice” and discussion points to “combat anti-Israel programming.”
Daniel Vessal apparently attended the CAMERA conference in Boston. In a group photo of the 2014 conference attendees posted along with the JNS.org story, Daniel Vessal can be seen in a turquoise t-shirt at the very end of the back row, on the right. The Electronic Intifada matched Vessal’s watch to the one he has worn in several public Facebook profile photos.
Bogus claims encouraged
Israel-aligned organizations have a history of aggressive campaigns against Palestine solidarity groups on and off campus.
In various student trainings and documents, such organizations have encouraged Zionist students to “name and shame” Palestine activists on campus and in the community, invent claims that Jewish students are being singled out for discrimination, file legal claims alleging anti-Semitism and to exploit relationships with administrators, police and minority groups on campus in order to “co-opt” them into supporting anti-Palestinian and anti-SJP positions.
When asked whether she thought the incident on 20 August could have been a premeditated provocation by Vessal, especially in the context of his fellowship and recent training by CAMERA, Pinto said that she couldn’t definitively say what his motives were.
“But this student is a paid fellow for CAMERA, which does try to antagonize SJPs,” she added. “I spoke to former SJP members who had graduated. They said that after seeing the [TruthRevolt] article, they recognized [Vessal], saying ‘oh, I know that kid, he’s come up to me and doesn’t try to have conversations, he just says aggressive things.’ I don’t think he expected anything to escalate to something that could be used as an allegation of assault, but I think they are trying to distract us away from the work we do as SJP.”
Pinto added that “it’s really sickening, because the violence had started up again in Gaza around the same time, and we were all spending time talking about [this incident], when in Gaza, people were losing their lives.”
Threats to faculty
Since the incident on 20 August, some tenured professors at Temple University have been trying to support SJP, said Rose Daraz, Temple SJP’s president. “It’s only tenured professors, though,” she explained, because non-tenured professors are concerned they could face intimidation and threats to their employment for speaking out in support of SJP.
Intimidating, threatening and pressuring universities to outright fire professors who criticize Israeli policies is not a new tactic employed by anti-Palestinian organizations. For years, faculty and student Palestine solidarity groups have been targets of the Anti-Defamation League, CAMERA, StandWithUs, the Amcha Initiative and others.
The Electronic Intifada has documented the recent firing of professor Steven Salaita from the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Illinois’ Urbana-Champaign campus after his outspoken criticism of Israel’s recent onslaught in Gaza, as well as a campaign to block his hiring by outside political groups.
File sent to DA
This week, Temple University stated that it had completed an investigation into the 20 August incident, and referred its findings to the district attorney’s office, but hasn’t yet taken any action against SJP.
Temple’s communications department has published an online Q&A page about the incident. There, Temple University says that it is not releasing nor discussing details of the investigation, including whether or not it has determined if a “hate crime” was committed or if anti-Semitic language was used during the incident.
Temple University states on its Q&A webpage: “No action regarding the status of the organization [SJP] will be taken until the Office of Student Conduct is able to evaluate the findings from the investigation to determine if the group violated the Student Conduct Code.”
The Electronic Intifada contacted Temple University for comment. Inquiring about Temple’s policy of holding student groups accountable for the actions of unaffiliated individuals, spokesperson Ray Betzner responded via email on 4 September that “Organizations can be held responsible for actions of members and guests. A review of the investigation will reveal what relationship the accused student had with SJP and any potential involvement of its members.”
The Electronic Intifada asked if referring a “verbal conflict” — as Temple has defined the incident — to a district attorney’s office is standard protocol, and if the university would defend its students against potential charges brought by the DA’s office.
“This was a verbal conflict that escalated to physical confrontation,” Betzner answered. “We investigated and turned it over to the DA’s office for action … Generally, the district attorney does not bring charges against student organizations. The university does not provide attorneys for its students in criminal cases.”
When asked if Temple University will defend SJP as a legitimate student organization if calls to dismantle the group become more aggressive, Betzner responded: “SJP continues to be a recognized student organization. We treat all student organizations the same. If a student organization violates university policy, it is subject to discipline.”
Liz Jackson, attorney with the Palestine Solidarity Legal Support Initiative, emphasized SJP’s established history of nonviolent action on campus, and added that she was concerned that the group could be held responsible for the actions of visitors at their table.
“The [SJP] chapter clearly condemns violence and immediately stated its opposition to the physical confrontation that they witnessed near their their table,” she told The Electronic Intifada.
“To hold SJP responsible for the actions of visitors to their table at a public event where the entire campus community was invited, would be absurd. It would strongly suggest that the university is discriminating against their message in support of Palestinian rights.”
In a statement released immediately after the incident on 20 August, Temple University said that “university officials … reached out to leaders of the Temple Jewish and pro-Palestinian communities to discuss the incident and a best path for moving forward.”
As SJP president Daraz explained, this attempt at “reaching out” created a false dichotomy between Palestinian and Jewish communities — “[the discussions] should have been between the pro-Palestine and pro-Israel sides,” she said, adding that many Jewish students align with SJP and not the Zionist groups on campus.
“Used to harassment”
Daraz is a senior at Temple, studying journalism and political science. She told The Electronic Intifada that before the incident, SJP was “used to Zionists harassing us at our tables and at our events.” However, she said, the group came under unilateral scrutiny two years ago from the administration based on claims made by anti-Palestinian student groups that SJP was financially supporting Hamas.
“We showed [the student affairs official] that the only organization we donated to was the Middle East Children’s Alliance,” Daraz said, referring to the Berkeley-based group that delivers medical aid and supports local projects for children in Palestine.
Recently, Daraz explained, SJP “has always had to be extra careful about following regulations and rules when preparing events, because we feel that they [anti-Palestinian groups] look for any chance to find a reason that we did something wrong. But it’s been pretty easy so far,” Daraz explained, despite what she called the “huge Zionist presence” on campus and frequent harassment.
Since the incident on 20 August, an anti-SJP Facebook group has been set up — “Demand the Removal of SJP from Temple University” — by some students. The page has garnered more than 500 “likes” and links to various right-wing articles about the incident, including one by noted anti-Palestinian Islamophobe Pamela Geller.
Jackson said that Temple SJP “has a first amendment right to speak up for Palestine on campus,” adding that this incident is just the latest in a series of actions designed to erase Palestine solidarity activism on campuses and censor criticism of Israel.
Jackson added that similar accusations of anti-Semitic slurs occurred during the divestment debates earlier this year at the University of Michigan. “Political opponents leveled unsubstantiated allegations that SJP supporters used the k-word. There, as here [at Temple], the students did not even know what the word meant,” she explained.
As the new school year begins, students at Temple University say that despite provocations and attempts to distract SJP from organizing for Palestinian rights, they are still motivated to continue their work.
Pinto explained that there has been wide support for SJP across the Temple student community and from human rights activism groups in Philadelphia: “We’re already talking to some of our allies in Jewish solidarity groups and Black solidarity groups, and we’re moving along with our semester and planning events that are going to emphasize that we’re not alone. There are so many parallels between the Palestinian struggle and [struggles] that are going on here in Philadelphia.”
Jewish Voice for Peace - Philadelphia issued a strong statement in support of Temple SJP a few days after the incident.
Organizers with Students for Justice in Palestine say they are anticipating increased membership in campus chapters as young people express outrage after Israel’s 51-day assault on the Gaza Strip, which killed 2,168 people, including 521 children, and injured nearly 11,000.
SJPs across the country are preparing for another wave of divestment campaigns, which seek to pull university investments from US companies that profit from Israel’s human rights violations.
Izzy Mustafa, an organizer with National Students for Justice in Palestine, told The Electronic Intifada that student activists are also expecting increased antagonism from anti-Palestinian groups in the coming school year as SJP becomes more popular on campuses.
“We are seeing a rise in students becoming more actively involved in Students for Justice in Palestine across the country because there are tangible campaigns that they can take part in, not only by spreading awareness but by taking concrete actions in pressuring their universities to not contribute and profit off [Israel’s] policies of occupation and apartheid,” Mustafa said.
Because of the positive impact that SJPs are making with their divestment campaigns, Mustafa said, SJP chapters are preparing to face “heightened opposition” from Israel-aligned groups organizations and the Israeli government itself. “After Israel’s massacre on Gaza this summer, it’ll be fascinating to see how much their hasbara [propaganda] tactics and their desperation intensifies,” Mustafa added.
Meanwhile, Samantha Pinto was adamant that the 20 August incident won’t deter Temple SJP’s schedule of events and political organizing on campus.
“While I think this is definitely possible that [Vessal] was trying to instigate us, it’s not going to take away from our work that we do on campus, which is really important,” Pinto said. “SJP has been on campus for over ten years, so we’re not going anywhere.”
Nora Barrows-Friedman is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada.